The first question people have for Giants back-up catcher Eli Whiteside is, “How old are you?”
He has more gray hair than most of the team’s coaches. He might have more gray hair than most of the team’s owners.
It doesn’t bother him.
“As long as it’s there and not falling out,” he says.
Whiteside is 30 years old. He says his hair started turning gray when he was a high school sophomore. It went completely gray when he started playing pro ball.
Whiteside’s home run yesterday against the Pirates, which energized the Giants’ comeback win, was his fourth of the season. After languishing in the minors with Baltimore, Minnesota then the Giants, Whiteside has emerged in the past two seasons as a quiet but crucial backup to catcher Bengie Molina.
But he almost didn’t make it this far.
He had been drafted by the Orioles in 2001 but during the next six years had played in just nine major-league games. He signed with the Twins before the 2008 season. But they released him in April after just eight games for their Triple A club.
He signed with the Giants a week later and spent the rest of 2008 in Fresno. He was growing frustrated.
By then, Whiteside was 28 years old. He had married his high school sweetheart, Amy, four years earlier. They wanted to start a family.
“You start asking, ‘Is it time to stop playing?”’ Whiteside said. “I didn’t want to play in Triple A forever. I talked to my wife and my mom about it and they said, ‘Why don’t you give it one more chance?’ ”
He agreed. “I wasn’t ready to give it up yet.”
He signed another free agent contract with the Giants in November 2008. And again he was sent to Fresno to start the 2009 season.
On May 23, 2009, he was with the Fresno Grizzlies in Iowa. The game had finished and he was on his way back to the hotel when his cell phone rang. It was the Grizzlies’ manager. The Giants wanted him to join them in Seattle. Pablo Sandoval had hurt his elbow and the team needed a back-up catcher.
Whiteside has been with the club ever since, solidifying his spot by catching Jonathan Sanchez’s no-hitter last July.
”It’s in his blood to play ball,” Eli’s other, Cindy, said by phone from her home in New Albany, Mississippi. “He and his sister lived and breathed baseball and softball.”
Eli’s family has lived in New Albany, a town of about 8,000 in northeast Mississippi, for as long as anyone can remember. It is most famous as the birthplace of William Faulkner. And it’s in a dry county. If you want to drink anything harder than sweet tea, you have to drive 25 miles to Tupelo.
Eli and his sister, Mitzi, grew up on 80 acres of land owned by his grandfather, who raised cattle and grew corn. Eli helped bale hay and crush corn for feed, spending much of his childhood at his grandfather’s side.
”Eli is the most humble person you’ll ever meet,” Cindy says. “There’s never any bragging. He got that from his grand-daddy.”
Eli and his wife bought a house in New Albany three years ago. Their first child, Whittington “Whit” Jackson Whiteside, was born in February.